With rising Islamic fundamentalism, weak government, and not enough dry land for its 150 million people, Bangladesh could use a break. Instead, it must face the catastrophic threat of climate change.

Barisal, a major river port in southern Bangladesh, offers a case study of the costs of that vacuum: a middle-sized city that reeks of garbage and raw sewage, because treatment plants are inadequate and canals have dried up, and because unauthorized high-rises have brought ever more people into the urban core. Ahmed Kaisea, the district environmental director, was another official who told me, “The laws are just fine. There is just no enforcement.” I had walked in on him without an appointment. He did not seem busy. His phone never rang, and there was no evidence of a computer. With electricity cuts throughout the day, use of the Internet is severely limited in Barisal, as in other Bangladeshi cities. He was like many a bureaucrat I encountered, with a spacious office but little effective power. And as his city sprawls around him, its growth driven in large part by rural migrants escaping the flood-ravaged countryside, his job becomes harder still.

For the many rural newcomers to Bangladesh’s cities, there is the rickshaw economy, as much an animating force in urban areas as the search for usable soil is in villages. Dhaka alone, a city of more than 10 million people, has several hundred thousand bicycle rickshaws. A rickshaw driver generally pays a rickshaw mustan (a mafia-style gang, often associated with a political party) the equivalent of $1.35 a day to rent the rickshaw. He collects 30 cents from an average passenger and ends up making around a dollar a day in profit. His wife may earn a similar amount breaking bricks into road material, while their children sift through garbage. In a country where 70 percent of the people subsist on less than $2 per day, such is the lot of a typical Bangladeshi family. This economic environment is perfect for the growth of radical Islam, which offers answers and spiritual rewards for suffering that a conviction in voting periodically cannot match. The surprise is not how radical Bangladesh (and much of the developing world) is, but how moderate it remains.

The social cohesion that does exist on the national level is the result of linguistic nationalism, not democracy. Unlike Pakistan or Iraq, this is an ethnically homogeneous country, and Islam is not the glue that holds together disparate groups. Moreover, national identity has been built on a shared history of violent struggle. In 1947, Muslim Bengalis rose up against the British and against India to form East Pakistan. Next came the 1971 liberation war against Muslim West Pakistan, which led to widespread rape and executions committed in Dhaka by a West Pakistani military hell-bent on imposing its Urdu language on the Bengalis. From East Pakistan—the “Land of the [Muslim] Pure”—the country became Bangladesh, the “Land of the Bengals.” Language had replaced religion as the society’s organizing principle.

But that principle is not inviolable. India, because it occupies most of the subcontinent—between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean—enjoys a demonstrable geographic logic; not so Bangladesh. Yet as small as Bangladesh is, it is vast in its own right. “Whoever comes to power in Dhaka—democratic, military—neglects us in Chittagong,” Emdadul Islam, a local lawyer, complained to me, voicing a sentiment common in the southeastern port city. “We have our own Chittagongian dialect—a mixture of Portuguese, Arakanese, Burmese, Bengali, and so on. Historically, we are as linked to parts of Burma and India as we are to the rest of Bangladesh. Who knows what will happen when Burma one day opens up and we have new road and rail links with India and southwestern China? Give me my fundamental rights and dignity, and I’ll love this soil. If not, I don’t know.” He was not calling for secession. But he was indicating how this artificial blotch of territory on the Indian subcontinent—called in turn Bengal, East Bengal, East Pakistan, and Bangladesh—could metamorphose yet again, amid the gale forces of regional politics, religious extremism, and nature itself.

India and China are nervously watching Bangladesh, for it holds the key to the reestablishment of a long- dormant historical trade route between the two rising behemoths of the 21st century. This route, as the Chittagong lawyer indicated, would pass through Burma and eastern India, before traversing Bangladesh on the way to Kolkata, helping to give China’s landlocked southwest its long-sought access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Whether this happens may hinge on the relationship between the environment and politics in Dhaka. A stable Bangladesh is necessary for this trade route, even though the route may lead, in time, to a weakening of national identity.

Toward the end of my stay in Bangladesh, I was in a bus traveling north from Cox’s Bazar in the southeast of the country, near the Indian and Burmese borders, to Chittagong, plowing through one recently formed swamp after another. It was only a week into the monsoon: there’d been no cyclone, no tropical storm, just normal heavy rains and mudslides that had killed more than 120 people in 48 hours. Along the sides of the raised road on which the bus traveled, the tea-colored water reached up to the bottom of corrugated-iron roofs. In other places, men gripped their lungis in waist-deep water. Whole trees were being swept downstream as rivers flowed only a foot or two under bridges. On these bridges, hordes of young men had gathered with ropes, fishing for firewood as it passed beneath. High mounds of wood were piled up, waiting to dry. Even heavier rains would come in July and August.

Society coped as well as it could, often ingeniously. A cascade of cell-phone text messages told of danger ahead. Signal flags had been set up on beaches to forewarn of incoming water. Disaster supplies had been pre-positioned in places as part of an increasingly sophisticated early-warning system. The Bangladeshi army and navy were available in case of major catastrophe. Otherwise, in many ways, it was up to the villages and the NGOs to deal with the natural world.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. His latest book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground.

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